Thomas Jefferson, the suburbanite


I’m just getting started on David Owen’s Green Metropolis, a new book that claims Manhattan is a much greener place to live than rural places or even, say, Charlottesville. More on this soon: Owen’s arguments so far are both compelling and guilt-inducing to someone like me who commutes from a dark holler in Nelson County. But I’m going to give Owen a fair shake at developing his thesis before I go blogging all over it.

For now, I just wanted to share his surprising take on our own dear Thomas Jefferson, and the house we are accustomed to worshipping as not only a mainstay of local tourism but a sacrosanct example of architectural genius. Before this passage comes along, Owen has already introduced Jefferson’s distaste for urban living and his belief that cities were deeply unhealthy. Then he says:

"Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise wild landscapes than by people who love them, or think they do—by people who move to be near them, and then, when others follow, move again. Thoreau’s cabin, a mile from his nearest neighbor, set the American pattern for creeping residential development, since anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move a mile farther along.

"Jefferson, too, embodied the ethos of suburbia. Indeed, he could be considered the prototype of the modern American suburbanite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational home improvement. The standard object of the modenr American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello."

Snap! "A house that was much too big!" I’d never exactly thought of Monticello that way before.